Curious Timing: 'Boyhood' Comes Under Questionable Attack as Oscar Voting Begins

The New York Times' weekend culture editor suggests that Richard Linklater's film is a ripoff of Michael Apted's 'Up' docs and is unworthy of Academy recognition — but Apted and the Times' own film critics disagree.
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in 'Boyhood'

Boyhood, the best picture Oscar frontrunner for the entire awards season until Birdman made it a race with PGA and SAG wins last month, is coming under attack at a very inopportune time. The indie, which was the best-reviewed film of 2014, is the subject of a long and derisive New York Times piece that posted online Friday — the day that final Oscar voting begins — and will be prominently featured in the print edition's Arts & Leisure section this weekend.

In the 1,380-word op-ed, weekend culture editor Mary Jo Murphy questions the acclaim that has been heaped upon Richard Linklater's project, which follows a fictional family for 12 years, because Michael Apted's Up documentaries, which catch up with the same real people every seven years, preceded it.

Murphy suggests, among other things, that Boyhood is a "one-trick pony" and a "pretty neat trick." She acknowledges its critical acclaim but posits, "It's hard to imagine that critics would have deployed such superlatives had the actors simply been aged by the application of makeup or other cinematic artifices in the service of the same threadbare story." She quotes a subject of Mr. Apted's Up docs about Boyhood, despite the fact that he "couldn’t bring himself to watch it." And, shortly before making "the case" that "Mr. Apted is the true groundbreaker and Mr. Linklater more of a lawn mower," she asks, "If Richard Linklater wins an Oscar in a couple of weeks for directing Boyhood, should someone wrest it away and hand it to Michael Apted?"

There are numerous questionable things about this:

(1) Linklater has openly and repeatedly acknowledged that Up and other temporally creative films influenced him. You would think, from the way Murphy writes about him, that he had plagiarized Apted's films, form and story. That couldn't be further from the truth. Instead, he made a largely autobiographical film that is aptly described by Boyhood's new marketing slogan, currently appearing on benches throughout Hollywood: "One family's life. Everyone's story." Shooting it over 12 years — something unprecedented in the narrative filmmaking realm — was simply the most effective way of telling that story, and he gave credit even when credit wasn't automatically due.

(2) Apted himself has cheered on Boyhood. He told Entertainment Weekly back in July, "It's terrific. … What he [Linklater] did was really remarkable and quite different." Need I say more? Murphy certainly needn't have.

(3) Murphy apparently disagrees with the Times' film critics — each of whom suggested that Boyhood is the best picture of the year and took no issue with anything related to the Up films. Manohla Dargis, in her Times review, wrote that she had seen Boyhood three times, was "eager to see it again" and described it as a "masterpiece." While acknowledging that "[i]ts closest counterpart is probably the 7 Up series," she also wrote, "It's almost surprising that no one seems to have made a movie like Boyhood before."

Stephen Holden put Boyhood at No. 1 on his year-end top 10 list, calling it "my favorite American film since Brokeback Mountain (2005)." And A.O. Scott introduced his year-end top 10 list, which was also topped by Boyhood, stating, "In my 15 years of professional movie reviewing, I can't think of any film that has affected me the way Boyhood did. … It took a second and a third viewing for me to appreciate the ingenuity of Richard Linklater's idea and the artistry of his methods." (Indeed, in the same issue of the Times in which Murphy's Boyhood piece appears is a full-page advertisement quoting Scott's rave.)

(4) Boyhood has been out in theaters since July, and Murphy presumably did not just learn about the existence of the Up films, which makes one wonder why this story is coming out now, on the day that Oscar voters finally get to weigh in on a very competitive race.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg